Ingenuity Graduating to More Sophisticated Jobs on Mars

The success of the Ingenuity helicopter on Mars have been a source of pleasant surprise for NASA scientists, who say the robot is ready to perform more critical operations in the overall mission of finding signs of ancient life on Mars. 

NASA Mars helicopter Ingenuity became the first aircraft to perform a powered, controlled flight on another planet. The rotorcraft arrived on Mars attached to the belly of the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover. (Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech)

(CN) — The Ingenuity helicopter has outperformed the expectations of NASA scientists. Now, the groundbreaking flying robot will transition to an operational role in the mission to find evidence of ancient life on the red planet. 

“Ingenuity loves Mars,” said Mimi Aung, the Mars Helicopter Project Manager. “And we are happy and proud now — it’s like Ingenuity is graduating from its demonstration phase to an operational phase.”

Initially, NASA researchers were only interested in Ingenuity’s ability to test a proof of concept — whether a drone helicopter could actually fly in the thin atmosphere of Mars, where air pressure is so scant that makes it difficult for the rotary blades to gain purchase. 

But after the helicopter took its first flight in the early morning hours of April 19, researchers began looking to expand the flying robot’s capability. 

“Some of the operational products Ingenuity can produce include aerial observation of specific science targets, the ability to travel to places not accessible by the rovers and scouting for new potential science observations and new airfields,” Aung said. 

Ingenuity is not central to the fundamental mission of the Perseverance rover, which has been sent to Mars to collect samples to be sent back to Earth in the larger quest to find signs of ancient life on the red planet. 

However, because the test flights have gone so well and because Pererverence is focused on collecting mudstones from its current location in the Jezero Crater, the helicopter flight team has an opportunity to make more flights in the near term. 

“It really is a fortuitous alignment,” said Ken Farley, the Perseverance project scientist. 

Farley said initially scientists had planned to move the rover farther south and closer to what was formerly a delta a billion years ago when Mars had water flowing on its surface, but it has been occupied with collecting samples from its present location. 

“The mudstones are important for investigation because the area may have been the most habitable for organisms that may have existed billions of years ago,” Farley said. “They are most likely to have biosignatures.”

Scientists are not looking for skeletal remains of Martian aliens as imagined by science fiction authors, but are instead looking for fossilized remnants of microorganisms that scientists hypothesize may have flourished in the ancient waters of Mars. 

The Jezero Crater was once a lake billions of years ago and is as likely as anywhere on the planet to contain signs of ancient life. 

But the pause in the rover’s traverse means the helicopter team can make a few more flight missions in the next couple days to weeks. 

“We will do one or two more flights in the next couple of days,” said Jennifer Trosper, the deputy project manager for the Perseverance rover. “While we operate the helicopter not to interfere with the central mission, as long as it is available and alive we will continue to learn more things.”

The Ingenuity is designed not to interfere with the rover, but scientists are increasingly optimistic that the flying robot could help the rover by scouting out terrain to determine whether the rover can reach certain areas of the crater. 

“It could help us traverse in more hazardous terrain,” Trosper said. 

The helicopter will also look for other airfields with the hopes it may be able to explore areas of the Jezero Crater inaccessible to a land-based exploration vehicle like Perseverance.  

All the while scientists are analyzing the incoming data regarding Ingenuity flights in hopes to perfect aerial technology for the next generation of Mars exploration. 

“NASA’s first mobile surface explorer, the Sojourner rover, launched in 1997 and completely shifted our paradigm, forever changing how we think about exploring the surface of Mars — and Ingenuity’s going to do the same thing,” said Lori Glaze, NASA director of Planetary Science.

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